Posted on

BP’s robot submarines cap oil leak

BP’s robotic submarines wrestled a cap into place over the jagged end of a pipe from ruptured well deep below the Gulf of Mexico, in a dramatic bid to stem a disastrous oil spill.


Live video feed provided by BP showed the inverted, funnel-like cap being attached to the well’s fractured riser pipe in near-freezing waters, nearly a mile (1,600 meters) below the surface. BP aims to then siphon the oil to a ship on the surface.

Oil and gas continued to spew out unimpeded with great force, complicating efforts to determine whether the cap was in fact a good fit. BP officials and the US Coast Guard did not immediately respond to requests for comments.

But engineers have already acknowledged that the cap will not be a fix-all, and some of the crude will still spew out even if it is successfully placed over the gusher.

BP earlier managed to slice off the fractured well pipe with a pair of giant shears, but the cut was jagged and officials had to resort to a looser-fitting cap.

The British energy giant’s chief executive, Tony Hayward, has warned it could take about a day after the cap is put in place to know if it is managing to contain the worst of the spill, amid warnings that, with the broken pipe cut off, the oil flow would initially increase by up to 20 percent.

The firm has repeatedly tried — and failed — to contain the disastrous leak since an April 20 explosion tore through the BP-leased Deepwater Horizon rig just off the Louisiana coast.

Between 22 million and nearly 36 million gallons of crude have already spewed into Gulf waters, threatening vulnerable coastal wetlands, wildlife and livelihoods, according to US government estimates.

After the cap, the next chance to halt the flow would not come until mid-August, when relief wells are completed.

Posted on

Republicans are radicals: Obama

US President Barack Obama on Friday branded Republicans as radical and reactionary, in campaign appearances for high-profile Democratic senators under threat in November’s mid-term polls.


Obama rallied crowds in Los Angeles, California, and was to move on to gambling paradise Nevada in a bid to rescue wobbling Democratic Senate majority leader Harry Reid, on the third day of a four-day campaign blitz.

He charged that the first Republican president, his political hero Abraham Lincoln would not be able to win the opposition party’s presidential nomination in the modern age.

“Seriously, can you imagine him trying to run with these folks?” Obama said, in a bid to portray the Republican Party as outside the mainstream ahead of November 2 congressional polls in which his Democrats fear heavy losses.

Obama accused Republicans of sitting on their hands while he saved the economy from a second Great Depression and of wanting to go back to the same lax regulatory regimes that caused the crisis in the first place.

“This agenda that poses as conservatism is not conservative. It resulted in a radical shift from record surpluses to record deficits, allowed Wall Street to run wild, nearly destroyed our economy,” Obama said.

“This is a choice between the past and the future, between fear and hope, between moving backwards and moving forwards. And I don’t know about you, but I want to move forward,” Obama said, at a campaign event for under-fire Democratic Senator Barbara Boxer.

“They are clinging to the same worn-out, tired, snake-oil ideas that they were peddling before.”

At a second event in Los Angeles, featuring actor and comedian Jamie Foxx as a warm up act, Obama fired off his stump speech to a crowd of 32,500 people, as 5,000 more watched on a big screen set up in an overflow area.

Republicans need to win 39 seats to take back the House after four years of Democratic control — a task well within their reach with some analysts judging up to 90 races in the 435-seat chamber as competitive.

In the Senate, Republicans need a 10-seat swing, a result that may be beyond them after several races tightened in favor of Democrats in recent days, and a scenario of six or seven seats changing hands seems more likely.

Obama was later to head to Nevada to take part in a Democratic National Committee rally alongside Reid, who is the top Republican target in the election, and is locked in a close race with “Tea Party” conservative favorite Sharron Angle.

He was due to finish up a campaign swing, which has also taken in Oregon and Washington state, in Minnesota on Saturday.

Posted on

Thorpe drops defamation claim

Olympic swimmer Ian Thorpe has dropped a defamation case against a French journalist and sports newspaper over doping claims.


Thorpe was suing the daily sports newspaper L’Equipe, its publisher, and journalist Damien Ressiot, over an article published in March 2007.

The paper claimed Thorpe gave a urine sample in May 2006 which showed abnormal levels of testosterone and a luteinising hormone.

Thorpe’s solicitor Tony O’Reilly said despite being served with the proceedings several times, counsel for neither L’Equipe nor Mr Ressiot appeared in court.

“In these circumstances Ian has decided not to pursue the proceedings as he sees little point in obtaining a verdict in the absence of Mr Ressiot and the publisher of L’Equipe,” Mr O’Reilly said in a statement on Monday.

‘No evidence’ of drug use

In August 2007, the Australia Sports Anti-Doping Authority (ASADA), which went on to investigate the claims, cleared Thorpe, stating there was no evidence to support the allegation he used performance enhancing drugs.

FINA, swimming’s world governing body, made similar findings.

Having won five Olympic gold medals at the Sydney and Athens games, Thorpe is Australia’s most successful Olympian.

Mr O’Reilly said Thorpe brought about the proceedings to vindicate his reputation as a clean sportsman and to show the damage that can be done to the anti-doping fight if an athlete’s privacy is not respected during the routine drug testing process.

“Ian remains grateful for all the support that he received from Australians and people all over the world, as well as from the swimming fraternity and athletes from a number of other sports, who have let him know that they never doubted his integrity as an athlete.”

Posted on

Dalai Lama honoured with democracy medal

The Dalai Lama was bestowed Friday with a US award for his commitment to democracy, the latest honor for the Tibetan spiritual leader despite China’s angry protests over his White House welcome.


One day after President Barack Obama met the exiled monk at the White House in defiance of Chinese warnings, the National Endowment for Democracy gave the Dalai Lama a medallion before a packed crowd at the Library of Congress.

The Endowment, which is funded by the US Congress, hailed the Dalai Lama for supporting a democratic government in exile and his willingness to even abolish a centuries-old spiritual position if Tibetans so choose.

“By demonstrating moral courage and self-assurance in the face of brute force and abusive insults, he has given hope against hope not just to his own people but also to oppressed people everywhere,” Endowment president Carl Gershman said before placing the Democracy Service Medal around the monk’s neck.

Dalai Lama ‘admires’ US

The Dalai Lama, who fled his Chinese-ruled homeland for India in 1959, voiced admiration for US and Indian democracy and said China’s authoritarian system was unsustainable.

“The Chinese Communist Party, I think, did many wrong things. But at the same time, they also made a lot of contribution for a stronger China,” he said.

The Dalai Lama pointed to the growing interest of many Chinese in getting rich. Calling himself a Marxist in his support for a strong social safety net, the Dalai Lama joked: “Sometimes I feel my brain is more red than those Chinese leaders.”

“Sometimes I express now the time has come for the Communist Party should retire with grace,” he said in English, laughing that Chinese leaders would be “furious” at his comments.

China protests

China earlier protested Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama, saying the United States had “grossly violated basic norms of international relations” and summoning the US ambassador, Jon Huntsman.

“The US action seriously interfered in Chinese internal affairs, seriously hurt the feelings of China’s people and seriously harmed China-US relations,” foreign ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu said in a statement.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said the Dalai Lama’s meetings with Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were part of a longstanding US dialogue with the Tibetan leader.

“I think on this issue, obviously we just agree to disagree,” Crowley told reporters.

The International Campaign for Tibet, which works closely with the Dalai Lama, quoted witnesses as saying that residents in Tibet and historically Tibetan areas of China’s Sichuan province chanted prayers and set off firecrackers to celebrate the White House meeting, despite tight security.

Beijing accuses the Dalai Lama of trying to split China, although the exiled leader has repeatedly said he accepts Chinese rule.

In a nod to Chinese sensitivities, the Obama White House prohibited cameras from entering the meeting, which took place in the Map Room, not the seat of presidential power in the Oval Office.

But the White House later issued a statement voicing support for the Dalai Lama and his nonviolent quest for greater rights for Tibetans.

With Obama, the Dalai Lama has now met every sitting US president since George H.W. Bush in 1991.

Offering one tidbit from Thursday’s meeting, the Dalai Lama revealed that Obama gave him a memento from a much earlier interaction with a US president — a copy of a letter Franklin Roosevelt sent him in 1942.

Roosevelt mailed the Dalai Lama, who was then seven, the letter and a golden Rolex watch as a gesture to seek relations with the remote Himalayan land.

“At that time, my only interest is the gift of the watch, not the letter,” the Dalai Lama said with a laugh.

“I actually don’t know where that letter goes. Now after 68 years, just yesterday, President Obama gave me a copy of that letter.”

The monk frequently tells the story of the watch, saying that fiddling with it helped spur his lifelong interest in science.

In 2007, he carried the gold watch in his pocket when George W. Bush presented him with the Congressional Gold Medal, the only time a sitting US president has appeared with him in public.

Posted on

Clinton dodges Pakistan bomb attack

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton kicked off talks in Pakistan, as a car bomb ripped through a market in Peshawar killing at least 43 people.


“It was a huge bomb blast, heard in almost all the city,” Anwar Shah told AFP by telephone.

Blast rips through Peshawar

A large blaze broke out after the explosion, which came just hours after US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived in Pakistan’s capital Islamabad for three days of talks with political and military leaders.

Meanwhile Clinton, promising new investments while fending off bitter criticism of Washington’s policies from within the anti-terror ally, arrived just hours before the blast that also wounded at least 35.

“We are turning a page on what has been in the last several years primarily a security anti-terrorist agenda,” Clinton told reporters travelling with her.

“It remains a very high priority. But we also recognise that it’s imperative that we broaden our engagement with Pakistan,” she added, pledging that the United States wanted to “strengthen democracy” and civilian institutions.

Her arrival comes at a critical juncture for Pakistan, where a rising number of audacious attacks has shown Al-Qaeda and Taliban-linked extremists can target anyone at anytime, and with the military pressing a major offensive.

The Pakistan-US alliance can be uneasy particularly among the general public in both countries. The United States, which is heavily committed in Afghanistan, relies on Pakistan for regional stability and to fight militants.

Pakistan relies on US funds

Pakistan, whose government is cash-strapped and the economy battered, relies on US cash and weapons to fight against extremism and militancy.

Clinton acknowledged there can be “misunderstanding” and “miscommunications”, but stressed that the Obama administration was committed to building a long-term relationship with the troubled country.

“Nine months is not a long period of time to turn around a relationship that has a lot of scars,” Clinton told reporters.

“It’s fair to say that we have really increased the level of conversation and sharing of information over nine months,” Clinton said.

US keen to bolster government

The United States is keen to bolster the civilian government, whose relations with the powerful military have been fraught, following on from a massive 7.5 billion dollar non-military aid package already signed into law.

The military and political opposition slammed the package — designed to help Pakistan fight Islamist insurgency by building schools, training police and strengthening democracy — for allegedly violating Pakistan’s sovereignty.

Clinton said she was “concerned” by the opposition and reiterated that the bill imposed no conditions on Pakistan, pledging further assistance.

“We will be making some announcements about some of the investments we are making with Pakistan on the civilian side,” she added referring to jobs, reliable sources of energy, education and healthcare.

Insurgency to be ‘stamped out’

Around 30,000 troops are pressing an assault against Pakistani Taliban fighters holed up in South Waziristan, part of the tribal belt on the Afghan border where US officials say Al-Qaeda is plotting attacks on the West.

Clinton said it was “important to recognise the high price the Pakistanis are paying” in the war on Islamist militancy.

“They (the military) are extraordinarily committed and we have to support them the way we can,” said Clinton, who is expected to meet some of the more than 200,000 people who have been displaced by the latest offensive.

But another area of concern is nuclear proliferation. The United States has warned that the reputed father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, Abdul Qadeer Khan, is still a proliferation risk after being given freedom of movement.

“We want to encourage Pakistan to join with us in the non-proliferation review conference that will be held next spring,” Clinton told reporters.

“We want them to really understand how serious a threat we face.”

During her three-day visit, she is due to hold talks with the political and military leadership, meet those displaced by the conflict in Waziristan, the political opposition and reach out to civil society to improve the US image.

“WeGÇÖre trying to reach more broadly into the society,” she said in a bid to reverse “misconceptions” about the United States in Pakistan.

Posted on

Obama courts India, Pakistan

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urged the United States Sunday to pressure Pakistan to rein in Islamic extremists as President Barack Obama walked a fine line with the rival nations’ leaders.


On the eve of a 47-nation summit on nuclear security, Obama met separately with Singh and Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani as part of his administration’s efforts to build relations with both countries.

Addressing one sore point, India said Obama promised Singh to give access to David Headley — the US-born son of a former Pakistani diplomat who admitted scouting sites for the bloody 2008 siege of Mumbai.

US prosecutors have promised not to extradite Headley in return for his guilty plea, setting off indignation among Indians who wondered the reaction if the United States were denied access to a culprit of the September 11 attacks.

Indian Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, who attended the meeting, said Obama was “fully supportive” of Singh’s requests for access to Headley but declined to give a time-frame.

But Rao said that India also wanted the United States to turn up the heat on Pakistan to rein in Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Islamist movement accused of carrying out the Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead.

Singh told Obama “that unfortunately there was no will on the part of the government of Pakistan to punish those responsible for the terrorist crimes in Mumbai of November 2008,” Rao told reporters.

“This is where the partnership of India and the United States could make a difference,” she said.

Relations between the United States and India have warmed markedly in the past decade, with US political leaders across the political spectrum embracing an alliance with the world’s largest democracy.

Obama last met with Singh in November last year when he gave him the honor of the first state dinner of his presidency.

But the United States also has a growing relationship with Pakistan and the Obama administration has been keen to ease anti-Americanism in the country by showing it is seeking cooperation on issues other than Afghanistan.

Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Abdul Basit said ahead of Obama’s meeting with Gilani that he hoped it “will help accelerate the momentum of relations” after the United States held a first-of-a-kind strategic dialogue with Islamabad last month.

The United States and India will hold a similar strategic dialogue in June.

Despite concerns about Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Obama administration has welcomed what it sees as a stronger response by Pakistan in cracking down in other extremist groups including homegrown and Afghan Taliban.

Afghanistan has also been a source of tension between India and Pakistan, with many policymakers in Islamabad fearing its historic rival New Delhi is trying to surround it through its warm relations with President Hamid Karzai.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Obama “welcomed the humanitarian and development assistance that India continues to provide to Afghanistan.”

Obama and Singh “vowed to continue to strengthen the robust relationship between the people of their countries” and work together on issues including reducing poverty and improving food security, Gibbs said in a statement.

India and Pakistan are considered crucial players in the goal of the two-day Washington summit — preventing loose nuclear material from falling into the hands of extremists.

The two nations declared themselves nuclear weapons states in 1998. The United States has welcomed India’s record and pursued cooperation but has been concerned about proliferation from Pakistan.

Posted on

Can the Copenhagen summit succeed?

A few short months ago, it seemed almost inconceivable that the UN Climate Change Summit in Copenhagen would end with anything less than a binding, legal agreement.


Now it looks like they will be a failure—at least, if one considers what was the original goal of the talks.

Watch George Negus’ interview with Danish Climate Minister Connie Hedegaard.

‘No legal binding deal this year’

There have been several signs over the past weeks that indicate that no legally binding deal is likely at the global talks in Copenhagen.

Even Germany acknowledged it, calling for all countries to fix binding climate change targets next year at the latest.

“Next year, if possible during the first half, we must clinch a binding deal which will have international oversight of each country’s obligations,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters on the margins of an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels.

All hopes for a deal where crushed on November 16 when at the the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Singapore, 17 heads of states and government dropped a proposal included in earlier drafts to slash their greenhouse gas emissions to half their 1990 levels by 2050.

China vows to slow emissions growth

But there have also been some signs that that big tanker may be very slowly turning.

China promised to slow its carbon emissions, saying it would nearly halve the ratio of pollution to GDP over the next decade – a major move by the world’s largest emitter, whose cooperation is crucial to any deal as a global climate summit approaches.

Beijing’s voluntary pledge comes a day after President Barack Obama promised the US would lay out plans at the summit to substantially cut its own greenhouse gas emissions. Together, the announcements are building momentum for next month’s meeting in Copenhagen.

But environmental experts warned that China’s plan does not commit it to reducing emissions – and that they will in fact continue to increase, though at a slower rate.

With the United States now offering specifics – reducing carbon dioxide emissions by about 17 per cent from 2005 levels by 2020 – China seemed to follow its lead.

China pledged to cut “carbon intensity”, a measure of carbon dioxide emissions per unit of gross domestic product, by 40 to 45 per cent by 2020, compared with levels in 2005. Beijing also said Premier Wen Jiabao will take part in the Copenhagen meeting.

“There’s no question their carbon emissions would continue to grow under this scenario,” said Charlie Melee, an international environmental and energy lawyer based in Shanghai. “This isn’t by any means an agreement by China to either cap, much less reduce, the amount of its carbon emissions. It’s only slowing down the rate at which emissions are growing.”

If China did nothing and its economy doubles in size as expected in coming years, its emissions would likely double as well. The pledge means emissions would only increase by 50 per cent in such a scenario.

Senate to act on Climate Bill in 2010

Even more critically, the US climate change legislation won’t pass the Senate in time for the summit.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has said the US Senate will act in early 2010 on legislation to battle climate change, ending hopes of a breakthrough by next month’s global talks.

Obama ‘could still agree to target’

The Obama administration offered to curb US emissions by 17 percent from 2005 levels by 2020 — less than calls by the European Union, Japan and UN scientists but the first numbers on the table by the world’s largest economy.

The White House said Obama would lay out a longer term plan for a 30 percent reduction of US emissions from 2005 levels by 2025, a 42 percent reduction by 2030 and an 83 percent cut by 2050.

Stefan Krug, head of the political unit for Greenpeace Germany told Business Week the US have more room for maneuvere than they are currently admitting.

“Obama could actually already agree to legally binding objectives for CO2 emissions without waiting for Congress.

“He could also make financial promises to developing nations and make those commitments dependent on greenhouse gas reductions,” Mr Krug said.

Scope of the summit redefined?

SBS Dateline Presenter George Negus says the summit will still be useful in spreading awareness on climate change issues.

“The political reality is that it is not as easy as it appears for the entire world to agree on a course of action on something that is incredibly complex economically, politically and environmentally as climate change,” Mr Negus said.

“We failed miserably as a human race, a community of nations to solve the problem of war for centuries, so why should we suddenly find it easy to solve as problem like global warming and climate change?”

Mr Negus reckons it may take two to three years from the Copenhagen summit to draft a successor treaty to the Kyoto Protocol.

In an exclusive interview with SBS Dateline program, Danish Climate Change Minister Connie Hadegaard stressed how difficult it is to try to put together an international agreement like this one.

She said she hopes a deal can still be reached in Copenhagen, but added the summit will also be important to spread global awareness on climate change.

“You must also take care that the awareness is out there, that people knows that this is important, that businesses say to their government that we want you to act. That the civil society, NGOs, all of them put maximum pressures on ministers, on parliaments, on governments”, she told Dateline.

“That is what international politics is all about. To try to get them altogether. Make the pressure so strong so that in the end they will start to compromise.

“I don’t know whether we’ll succeed in doing that in Copenhagen but that is obviously what we are trying to achieve”.

Posted on

Tourists evacuated amid fire warning

Temperatures in some parts of the state had exceeded 40 degrees Celsius by midday with strong winds also recorded.


A Parks Victoria spokeswoman said hundreds of campers had been evacuated from parks across the Wimmera, including the Grampians National Park, which is the largest in the district, as the area faces a code red catastrophic day.

Others parks experiencing evacuations include Little Desert National Park, the Black Range State Park and the St Arnaud Range National Park, where there was a bushfire false alarm earlier in the day.

Warning to residents

In Melbourne, temperatures will peak after 5pm, authorities said.

Police said earlier on Monday the heat was more dangerous than the fires and urged people to leave work early or wait until after 7pm to ease the strain on the public transport system.

Authorities have warned that the heatwave won’t end today with up to three fire districts facing catastrophic conditions tomorrow.

Country Fire Authority (CFA) state controller Russell Rees warned Tuesday will also be a dangerous day for fires and urged residents to leave early.

“We want people to prepare and understand that we are in a very difficult weather scenario with a wind change coming, the potential for a very hot night and very real risk for Victorians, for the western and central part of the state today leading into the evening and the north eastern part of the state tomorrow,” he told reporters in Melbourne.

Mr Rees said a code red did not mean everyone in the area should leave, but those in high-risk areas should move to bigger towns.

He said the CFA’s website temporarily experienced technical difficulties on Monday morning, but the problems were quickly fixed.

Police Commissioner Simon Overland urged people to keep themselves and their families safe.

“What we say to the community is if you are in those areas and you are in a high-risk environment your safest option is to leave,” he said. “The worst decision you can make is to stay and go late.”

“The extreme weather event itself … poses probably a greater risk than the fires at this point,” he said. “The weather …will peak later in the day … the hottest part of the day will be somewhere around 5pm on.”

False alarm

Authorities have one less worry after a bushfire emergency near St Arnaud in western Victoria proved to be a false alarm.

Seventeen firefighters rushed to the St Arnaud Range National Park about 11am after a fire spotter reported seeing smoke from a nearby tower.

But when crews arrived there was no fire, a Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) spokeswoman said.

SA fires

In South Australia, catastrophic warnings are in place for the Eastern Eyre Peninsula, Lower Eyre Peninsula, West Coast, Mid North, Yorke Peninsula, Murraylands, Upper South East, Lower South East, Kangaroo Island and the Mount Lofty Ranges.

The South Australian Country Fire Service says people in those areas still have time to leave their homes for a safer place.

A fire burning near the Edinburgh RAAF base in Adelaide’s north has been brought under control.

The Country Fire Service said 45 firefighters attacked the blaze this morning and had it contained in 40 minutes.

Two water bombing aircraft were also deployed, making one drop each.

The fire destroyed about three hectares of grassland and came as South Australia sweltered through its fourth consecutive day of 40-plus temperatures, therefore facing catastrophic fire dangers.

The temperature in most districts is forecast to reach the low 40s Celsius, with a cool change expected overnight.

Fire bans are also in place in Tasmania and parts of southern New South Wales.

Posted on

Indonesian police arrest four in anti-terror raid

Indonesian police say they have arrested four people after a major raid on a terrorist training camp in a remote region of Aceh province and are pursuing dozens who escaped.


Aceh police chief Aditya Warman said some 50 militants were using the camp and “strongly suspected” of being part of regional terror group Jemaah Islamiah (JI), blamed for multiple attacks across Indonesia.

More than 100 heavily armed police took part in the raid just before midnight on Monday in a forested part of Aceh Besar district, about 70km east of the provincial capital Banda Aceh.

The militants were conducting military-style training including the use of firearms.

Only three were caught in the raid and the rest escaped into the jungle, the police chief said.

A police spokesman later updated the number arrested to four.

Police found rifles, Malaysian military uniforms and terrorist propaganda material including videos of the 2002 bombings on the Indonesian resort island of Bali which killed 202 people including 88 Australians.

Al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah is blamed for that attack and many others over the past decade.

“We received information that there were training activities comprising 50 people from a group suspected to be related to Jemaah Islamiah,” Warman said.

“The group keeps moving around to avoid police detection. They have moved over four districts.

“We found books on jihad (holy war), CDs on bombings in Bali and other areas, Malaysian military uniforms. There’s a jacket with the word ‘Jemaah’ (‘congregation’) on it, among other things.”

The police chief said operations were ongoing to track down the remaining suspects. “We’ve known about them since September but we couldn’t find them until now,” he said, adding that the group included foreigners who were able to “blend in” with locals. “

We’re very careful when dealing with this group so we must coordinate with national police,” Warman said.

“We will continue to chase them.” It is not the first time remote areas of Aceh, the most conservative province of mainly Muslim Indonesia, have been used by alleged terrorists to train and hide, but the region is not known as a hotbed of extremism.

Most JI activity in Indonesia revolves around radical mosques and Islamic schools on the main island of Java, where students are fed jihadist propaganda and groomed to be suicide bombers.

Monday’s raid comes five months after police tracked down and killed terror mastermind Noordin Mohammed Top, the Malaysian leader of a JI splinter group who was wanted for a series of attacks dating back to 2003.

Many of his accomplices — including those who allegedly plotted the twin suicide bombings of Western hotels in Jakarta in July last year which killed seven people including three Australians — have been killed or arrested.

But Indonesian police say JI operatives continue to plot attacks against Western targets around the region, in a bid to replace pro-Western governments with a radical Islamic caliphate spanning much of Southeast Asia.

Three JI extremists were executed in Indonesia in 2008 for their roles in the 2002 Bali bombings and hundreds of others have been arrested.

However, two of the group’s senior leaders, Dulmatin and Umar Patek, remain at large and are believed to have been hiding in the southern Philippine jungle with the Abu Sayyaf group since 2003.

Posted on

Czechs vote for austerity in shadow of Greek crisis

Czechs showed concern for their country’s finances when casting ballots in Saturday’s election, ignoring left-wing promises of lavish benefits to vote in thrifty centrists and right-wingers.


While the left-wing Social Democrats (CSSD) narrowly placed first, the Civic Democrats (ODS), TOP 09 and Public Affairs were in talks Sunday on forming a centre-right coalition that would hold a solid parliamentary majority.

“Voters did the responsible thing when they backed parties offering a more responsible and better economic programme,” David Marek, an analyst with Patria Finance in Prague, told AFP.

“The fact that they paid attention to economic issues, that there was the global economic crisis, that we have a debt crisis now — this played the key role,” he said, adding markets would welcome the result.

Public finances, battered by the global downturn, became a hot issue in the election campaign in this ex-communist country, which is watching anxiously as the eurozone crisis hits its key trading partners, Germany and Slovakia.

Exit polls by the SC&C agency showed that 54 percent of voters considered public finances the top priority, ahead of curbing corruption.

“Voters took fright of what’s happening in Greece and they don’t want to go on living in debt,” said Next Finance analyst Marketa Sichtarova, adding she expected “drastic” reforms from the next government.

Looking set to form the country’s strongest cabinet since 1996, with support from 118 members of the 200-seat parliament, the three centre-right parties agree on the need to put together an austerity programme.

“Voters gave us a big opportunity to create a coalition of budgetary responsibility,” ODS leader Petr Necas said in a TV debate on Sunday as informal coalition talks started.

“We can see a chance the new team will push through the long-postponed health care and pension reforms, which are a necessary prerequisite for the long-term sustainability of public finances,” said Marek.

The CSSD, which failed to impress voters with promises of benefits and extra pensions, said on Sunday it would be fair if it had the first go at putting together a government.

But ahead of talks with the president, who names the prime minister under the constitution, CSSD deputy head Bohuslav Sobotka admitted his party’s chances of building a coalition were thin against the three-party force.

Czech debt is one of the lowest among the 27 European Union states, standing at 35.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009.

But the ratio grew rapidly during the global crisis — up from 30 percent in 2008 — as the government deficit reached 5.9 percent of GDP in 2009 against a 1.6 percent forecast made before the crisis hit.

In its latest forecast, the Czech National Bank predicted an improved economic rebound — 1.4 percent GDP growth for this year and 1.8 percent in 2011, following a 4.2 percent slump in 2009.

But it estimated debt would keep growing to 39.6 percent of GDP this year and to 43.4 percent in 2011, with the public deficit ratio still at 5.9 percent of GDP in 2011 if no belt-tightening was carried out.

Necas said he would like the deficit ratio in 2012 below the three-percent target required for joining the eurozone, though not necessarily with eyes on euro adoption.

“We want to have stable public finances, meet the euro criteria, balance the budget above all for ourselves,” he told AFP in a recent interview.

UniCredit Bank analyst Pavel Sobisek said this would require cutting the deficit to 4.8 percent of GDP next year.

Some analysts see this as tough task for politicians as municipal elections are due in the autumn and parties might be reluctant to cut spending in the budget for 2011, which must be ready earlier.

But Necas dismissed such concerns on Sunday.

“This is the key task, to stop the growing debt… and to meet the wish of the voters who made it absolutely clear that this is what they want,” he added.